We know from Topsy-Turvy that Mike Leigh loves Gilbert and Sullivan, so he was the obvious choice to mount the production of The Pirates of Penzance or the Slave of Duty that the English National Opera is counting on to rescue its shaky finances. In his programme essay he makes a good case for seeing Gilbert as a surrealist and a subversive, but not a satirist — meaning that the point of the Savoy Operas “is never to draw specific parallels.” Regarding them as specific attacks is, he thinks, to miss their “raw edge.”
In an odd way, the thousands of school productions every year of G & S operettas agree with half of Leigh’s thesis, as few of them ever draw specific parallels with events, people or institutions that could have been Gilbert’s historic targets. I admit it was a long time ago, but I have difficulty recalling anything like a raw edge in the school production of Pinafore in which I participated (but also cannot remember what role I sang).
It’s equally hard to spot the raw edges in Leigh’s Pirates, except perhaps for the soupçon of sympathy his direction elicits for the Pirate Apprentice Frederic’s spurning of the (carnal) love of his nanny, now Piratical Maid of All Work, Ruth. In the raw edges league, Leigh’s Pirates is left far behind by Sir Jonathan Miller’s ENO-lifesaving production of Mikado.
However, this is a terrifically enjoyable production, especially musically and – full marks to Leigh – dramatically. Conductor David Parry brings out the complicated textures of Sullivan’s score (except, I thought, in the overture – is it possible that Sullivan didn’t take enough trouble in it over the orchestration?). The choruses looked absolutely wonderful, pirates, police and Major-General Stanley’s daughters alike. Take a bow, Alison Chitty, whose strongly coloured sets mostly contained a sort of aperture through which we, the audience, saw the action on the stage; and lighting designer Paul Pyant, whose effects greatly enhanced the minimal choreography of Francesca Jaynes.
Above all the soloists were very good actors indeed, and some of them spectacular vocal performers. Of the veteran singers, I remember with relish Rebecca de Pont Davies’s in Garsington Opera’s production of Strauss’s Daphne for her Gaea, a role for a sort of bass-contralto, and even in this G & S mezzo role with its mostly high tessitura her lower register is thrilling. What casting could be more luxurious than to have Andrew Shore, Bayreuth’s Alberich (who was also a notable ENO Beckmesser) to sing the Major-General? Well, here it was matched by having Jonathan Lemalu to sing the Sergeant of Police. (My wife registered some disappointment that the conductor did not, as in am-dram productions, turn to the vast Coliseum audience and invite them to sing along to the final chorus of “A Policeman’s Lot is Not a Happy One.”)
British tenor Robert Murray’s Frederic deserves high praise, but Irish soprano Claudia Boyle’s Mabel was among the spectaculars, both for her flawless coloratura and for terrific comedy acting. On the last ditto for the flashing-eyed, dashingly handsome Pirate King, Joshua Bloom, the bass born in Australia to an American father.
Is Pirates bankable like Miller’s Mikado? Will it do the job it’s meant to do for the ENO? Hard to say, but on leaving, my companion said to me, ominously, “I really enjoyed the whole production. But I wouldn’t want to see it again.”